Ask A Scientist
Why does your tongue stick to a metal pole in the winter?
Asked by: Ryan Turdo
School: Glenwood Elementary School, Vestal School District
Teacher: Mrs. Donahue
Hobbies/Interests: Sports and video games
Career Interest: Football player
Answer from Douglas Green, EdD
Adjunct Lecturer, Binghamton University
Research Area: Leadership, Learning Theory and Social Media
Family: Daughter Lena, age 28, who is an animator for Nickelodeon in New York City
Interests/hobbies: Playing my banjo, biking, golf and reading
Web page address: http://www.drdouggreen.com
The saliva that coats your tongue is mostly water. When two objects at different temperatures touch, the warmer object gets colder and the colder object gets warmer until they are the same temperature. If the temperature of a metal pole is far enough below the freezing point of water, (32 degrees Fahrenheit) the saliva on your tongue will freeze as will the water in the cells that coat the surface of your tongue. The water on your tongue's surface and the water inside the cells on your tongue will form a big ice crystal and this is why your tongue will stick to the pole.
The cell membranes that surround each cell on your tongue will have ice on both sides that form a single crystal. They don't have much choice but to go in the direction that the ice is pulled. A crystal is a regular arrangement of molecules that forms when something is cold enough to be a solid.
If you find your tongue stuck to an icy pole, put your bare hands on the pole next to your tongue and wait for the heat from your body to warm the pole and hopefully melt the ice. If you just pull your tongue away from the pole, a piece of the surface of your tongue will likely stay stuck. (Ouch). If your tongue does remain in one piece, you will still feel a burn from the frostbite. If you lose a piece of tongue, don't worry, it will soon grow back.
If you have seen movie "Christmas Story," where the boys tried this on the playground, or the movie "Ice Age" where the squirrel-like animal has the same problem, you can learn from their mistakes. We all make mistakes. This one is easy to avoid.